Many of the spectators who turn out every November to watch the veterans go by on the Brighton Run probably consider these pre-1905 vehicles to have been crude playthings of the idle rich, and the 56-mile journey from Hyde Park about enough for them.
On the contrary, some of these early cars gave much longer service than is sometimes realised. One remembers the story of the 1891 Panhard-Levassor belonging to the Abbe Gavois of Rainneville, near Amiens. This conscientious priest had felt the need of an automobile to help him reach his flock in his scattered parish, but he was unable at first to afford the old twin-cylinder Panhard he had heard of for sale in Troyes at £120. However, it is said that after nine days of intense prayer at the shrine of St Anthony of Padua, patron Saint of the Anxious, his request was granted, for the Panhard’s owner had acquired a larger car and was prepared to let the three-year-old one go for a sum the Abbe could afford.
For the next 18 years the priest used the 1891 Panhard over great distances across the Picardy plains, and in the cobbled streets of Amiens. When it was 21 years old, still running as well as ever on solid tyres, hot-tube ignition, its gearbox pinions exposed, held on too-steep hills by its sprag, steered by tiller, it suddenly became news.
Newspaper men descended on the Abbe, a representative of a museum came from London to try to acquire “The Ancestor”, to which the priest consented, but only for the duration of the 1912 summer season, to raise funds for his parishioners.
Every effort was made to persuade the old man to accept a brand-new small car in exchange. To every offer, every bribe, he demurred. So the primitive Panhard remained in France, and it was given a special permit by the General commanding the area to continue to carry the Abbe on his errands of mercy throughout the war, this odd-looking and slow automobile having to take its chance among the Army trucks and the long lines of marching khaki figures.
The war over, the Abbe had the inevitable poverty of a stricken area to meet. It was that which persuaded him to sell at last the car which had never failed him from 1894 to 1921. The Panhard-Levassor works accepted the prize and offered to send a lorry for it. That the Abbe would not have. He insisted on driving “The Ancestor” the 90 miles himself.
He was aged 65 and started that last sad journey at 4 am, but he made it, aided by the coiled-tube radiator which he had himself fitted to the rear of the Panhard, and which he replenished when necessary from a wine bottle of water. So this very old motor-car went slowly past the monument to Emile Levassor in Paris, erected to commemorate his victory in the 732-mile Paris-Bordeaux-Paris race on a similar horseless carriage in 1895 at 15 mph, and on to its new resting place. “Ah, you see, it still runs,” the Abbe is reported to have said, as he climbed down from his lofty seat for the last time.
And there is an account of a 1901 solid-tyred 4 1/2 hp Benz still in regular use in Cornwall in 1910, giving 38 1/2 mpg at a cruising pace of around 16 mph over hilly roads, using oil side lamps and a single bicycle-size gas headlamp after dark. The only trouble was an occasional loose spoke in the 36-inch back wheels, which were refixed by the owner on wet days, as a form of relaxation. When it was necessary, nearly new back wheels were bought for 50/- the pair, from a similar Benz which was scrapped when no-one offered £7:10/- for it. WB